Philosophy admissions advice – part 4 – I’ve sent off my applications; now what?

You wait. I recommend that you forget you ever applied to graduate school. If you get in somewhere, they will call you up or send you an email in late February – mid March. You don’t have to impulsively check their website or anything; if they admit you then they will let you know. If you insist on being obsessive about the entire process (like I was) then there is an entire community of like minded philosophy grad school hopefuls out there with whom you can share your misery.

The most common thing people obsess about is when there is admissions activity. In order to put this information in the public domain (schools don’t just announce to the entire world when they have contacted people) there is a admissions results page at a site called Here people post when there are informed by schools that they have been accepted or rejected. Many people reason that if there are rejections posted, and you haven’t gotten one, then maybe the school will let you know very soon that you have been accepted. Conversely, if there are acceptances posted and you are still sitting with nothing, then you are shit out of luck. However, things are rarely so simple; often times schools send out rejections in waves, so even if you haven’t been rejected yet, yours might be coming in a few days (this happened to me at several schools). Some schools also don’t seem to inform everyone that they have been admitted in one day and at many schools being high on a waitlist gives you a very good chance of being admitted; so, one should not necessarily despair until a rejection is official. That said, I found that schools typically admitted and waitlisted people all at once and took their sweet time letting rejects know.  So, if you haven’t heard anything then you are probably out of luck.

There is also a livejournal site called whogotin, with a special section for philosophy. It seems that philosophy students use this site a lot more than all other subjects, so during the peak of admissions activity there is constant activity here. Whereas thegradcafe simply has a list of activity, whogotin is a discussion forum; so, things become a bit more interesting. It is probably best to just visit the site to get a good idea of what it is all about; you will certainly see what happens when otherwise reasonable people are stressed to the point where madness begins to set in.

On the more practical side, schools will start letting you know about your admissions status around from mid- February until about mid-March. If you haven’t heard from a school by the middle of March then this generally means you have been rejected but, of course, there are always some stragglers. You then have until April 15th to let them know if you are going to accept their admissions and funding offer; most people visit the schools they have been admitted to and many schools will help cover the costs of such a trip. However, things might get hairy if you have been admitted to a school but wait-listed at a school you would rather attend; this seems to be a common phenomenon and means that you might have to stay home sitting by your phone on the 15th in case you get a call with an offer from the more desirable school. It is also a good idea to be in contact with all the schools involved, so that everyone is aware of what is going on. And for the love of God, if you do get accepted to a school such that others you have been accepted at are no longer viable options for you, then withdraw from those other schools as soon as possible. Remember that REAL people are sitting on the waitlists at other schools biting their fingernails.

This is all I have to say about grad school admissions.  I hope it helps someone, though perhaps it won’t.  Oh well.

Philosophy admissions advice – part 3 – What makes a good application?

I don’t think my application did any miracles for me, so I’ll send you to Eric Schwitzgebel of UC Riverside who has composed a very helpful guide to philosophy graduate school applications. David Brink from UCSD has also prepared a similar (though shorter) guide. I’ll just throw in a few more suggestions, but the two above sources and your letter writers are probably a better bet…

  1. Do well on the GRE. I’m talking above a 1250 combined verbal and quantitative and ideally well above that. Bad scores will not completely doom your chances (I was just shy of 1200 and I got into a good program) but they will get you thrown out at many programs.  Also, I have heard that at many lower ranked departments, funding is only given to students who have high GRE scores. So, if you don’t do well, try again, and STUDY. That said, doing extremely well won’t help you nearly as much as putting more time into your writing sample.

  2. Make sure you make your writing sample very readable. This means that it should be well organized and clear; that is the best advice I got from my letter writers. People on admissions committees have to read a ton of these papers, so you should tell them everything you are doing o n the first page. Then divide the sample into different sections, so that they can jump to the meat of your argument before they decide to read it more carefully. Also, the paper has to be pretty much perfect; they are looking for any reason to throw your application out, so don’t give them one.

  3. Have a 2nd writing sample (probably in one of your area of interests outside of the area you wrote your main sample about) ready to send if it is requested.  I don’t think that it needs to be as good as your first sample, but certainly a revised A paper an undergrad course would be helpful.  In late February I got an email from Maryland asking me for a paper in philosophy of mind (my writing sample was in metaethics); I am lucky that I had something I could send.

  4. If your home department has a grad program, try to get into a philosophy grad course and get a letter from the instructor. I wasn’t able to do this and it probably would have helped; several people told me that this would be a very good idea.

Philosophy admissions advice – part 2 – Where to? Can I get in?

When I first started looking at graduate schools, I was directed to the Philosophical Gourmet Report. The report ranks PhD programs in philosophy based on the quality of each department’s faculty. Although, the scores for each department are formed by surveys distributed to a large number of professional philosophers, it is important to remember that the ranking is basically one of reputation among philosophers in the Anglo-American analytical philosophical community. It is not a rank of the graduate experience, teaching quality, or job placement after graduation (though it certainly makes sense that job placement would be highly correlated with faculty reputation). That said, it is certainly a good place to start your search for a suitable graduate program and it is great supplement to the opinions of faculty in your BA philosophy department.

During most of the application process, I paid way too much attention to the Gourmet Report and because of this I applied to some highly ranked programs that would not have been a good fit for me. If I had done things differently I could have found several programs that were ranked lower but who’s placement records and specialties might have served me well. I think a better strategy would have been to look more carefully at the faculty and their research, along with the types of courses offered. I have also heard quite a bit about some very highly ranked programs (featuring highly regarded faculty) where the graduate program is not given too much thought and therefore students are not given the benefit of being in the same department with such amazing scholars. So, simply put, rank is only one dimension. Also, note that departments that center around so called LEMMing philosophy (language, epistemology, metaphysics, and mind) tend to do better on the Gourmet Report; this isn’t a rule (and there is great debate about how the rankings treat departments not specializing in these areas) but if you are more interested in ethics or phenomenology (to give two examples) you might want to pay even less attention to the overall rankings and concentrate on rankings in those subject areas.

Another question that I still haven’t answered for myself is how much the location of a department should influence ones decision. There is a tendency for people to downplay the location factor. In fact, even bringing this up as an aspect of ones decision is considered a sign of not being serious about graduate study. I agree that one needs to be extremely flexible when going into philosophy; you need to apply to a wide variety of programs to have a good chance of going to any of them and upon graduation there is even more flexibility required because of the shortage of tenure track jobs. However, it seems that one’s living situation greatly affects the quality of one’s work, not to mention quality of one’s life; don’t forget that you will be spending about 6 years of your life in this location. This factor became most salient for me when I started to consider two schools rather similar in the Gourmet Report rankings but that exhibited extreme differences in the quality of their location. UC – Riverside (I will pick on them because they are the only department not to get back to me about my status – it is May already, and I would think I am at least entitled to a proper rejection….) is ranked 30th in the country for philosophy. They have a very interesting department and their group of ‘continental’ philosophers in a largely ‘analytical’ department is especially noteworthy; however, everyone I have talked to who has been to Riverside, CA has said it is a shit-hole. It basically has all the smog, traffic and gang violence of LA without any of the benefits of a major city. If you know anything about me, a car oriented desert is my version of hell. So, when I was considering whether I would accept my offer from the U of Maryland, which is also ranked 30th but located near Washington D.C, the location of Riverside meant that I didn’t even inquire as to my status with them. I figured I would be pretty miserable living there and, given my very broad philosophical interests, the individual strengths of Riverside probably wouldn’t overcome this fact. I did look at individual strengths of the department and Maryland still seemed like a good choice, but location had pretty much decided it for me before this comparison. Of course, location preferences are different for everyone; some people might prefer Riverside, CA over the Washington D.C area. But what sort of place you can stand and how much it matters to you is a personal decision and don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about that.

Next you need to ask yourself where you can realistically be accepted. You have to realize how competitive this entire game is; you might think you know (I thought I did when I applied) but you probably don’t. Here is some inside info, that might give you an idea. Maryland is ranked 30th in the nation, so it is by no means an elite program. It had only 4 open spots for its fall class and received over 150 applications (top programs can get about 300); of those who were accepted, one person had a BA in philosophy from an ivy league school and the other two had MAs. Now, there are a few people who get accepted to many top programs (so there certainly is a pattern to admissions) but most of us have to apply to many schools expecting rejection from most with the hopes of getting one or two acceptances. It is also my impression that many people are either rejected from every place they apply to or do not get adequate funding (probably from a school rather low on their list); so, if you are the average applicant (especially if you don’t come from an elite school, or one that doesn’t have a ranked PhD program in philosophy) you will have to fight your hardest to even get one acceptance. In order to find out what range you should apply to, ask your philosophy professors (perhaps with a copy of the Philosophical Gourmet report in hand). This will be more helpful if you are at a school that has a PhD program in philosophy because then your professors will have an idea of the sort of applicants that they typically admit. Also, try to get several opinions about your chances. One of my letter writers was far more optimistic about where I should apply to than another; if I had not listened to the less optimistic one I would likely not be going to graduate school next year. However, everyone I talked to told me to apply to as many places as I could afford and I think this is great advice. I applied to 17 places and I don’t think that was too many. Yes, I know, that is a crazy number but I get the impression that it is pretty typical.

My (perhaps) worthless advice for applying to philosphy PhD programs – part 1

I’m going to attempt to summarize the knowledge I have extracted from my PhD admissions experience. Just so you know my perspective, I was admitted to the University of Maryland – College Park with full funding for 5 years. That said, this was my only offer (not counting another wait-list that I withdrew from just before the deadline) and it only came after I had been on the wait-list for almost a month. Keep in mind that I consider myself rather lucky; I applied to a large group of schools and was only accepted at one, but many people were rejected by every school. From what I can gather, complete shutouts of applicants is quite common. So as you think about whether you want to apply to philosophy PhD programs, remember that the application process will probably be one of the largest undertakings you have completed so far in your life.

In the next few entries I’ll cover some topics that I had questions about when I started applying; I assume that these questions are pretty universal. I am by no means an authority (on anything), but the application process has certainly had an effect on me, and I think there is something I can add to the general knowledge base.  I’ll start out, in this entry, with the question of whether you should go to philosophy grad school at all.

Should I go – Is it really so bad?

It is common for professors of philosophy to tell those inquiring about grad school that if they could see themselves doing anything else other than philosophy then they should do that instead.  In fact, when I asked one of my professors for a letter of recommendation he attempted to convince me NOT to go into philosophy; I also had some interests in psychology and he thought that the prospects in that field were far better (after I had convinced him that I really did want to do philosophy he explained that he gave this “public service announcement” to every student who wanted a recommendation). I think that much of the pessimism about pursuing a career in philosophy is well grounded; the baseline job market for philosophers (not counting any momentary depressions due to the economy) is quite dismal (though the statistics on this are apparently a bit ambiguous) and most philosophy PhDs have to be ready to move to pretty much any location if they hope to secure a job as a professor. On top of this, fewer universities have serious research philosophy departments (those in which professors do more research than teaching) than those that have a great deal of science research, and therefore, most obtaining a PhD in philosophy should expect to teach far more than their counterparts in the sciences. But do these issues mean that students should only treat philosophy as a last resort – a profession they should only consider if nothing else could be fulfilling?

I think that this ‘last resort’ standard makes the prospective philosophy grad feel unwarranted desperation. Philosophers should have a wide variety of interests and abilities; how else are they supposed to write intelligently about the many topics with which philosophy interfaces? So, it seems odd that good philosophy students would have such narrow interests so that any other career would be totally unfulfilling. These sorts of thoughts came especially clear for me when I sat with no offers pretty late in the admissions season. I had to start thinking about ‘plan-b’, otherwise I would have no idea what to do if I was rejected from every place; I came up with several careers that might be interesting to do outside of philosophy. Of course, I might have hated these possible careers, but that is exactly the problem; it is extremely difficult to know your suitability for a career before starting it. So, why should one give up a potential career that seems interesting simply because they might like doing something else as well? If one can come out of the grad school experience without seriously harming other life goals (this is probably the key) then this doesn’t seem to be such a bad option.  Of course, given the job market, you should probably be able to accept grad school as having some sort of intrinsic goods.  Even if upon graduation you had to find a job outside of philosophy, you should be able to look at grad school itself as being a fulfilling experience.  If you can’t do this, then perhaps it would be best to find some other career.  And, if your goals are mostly monetary in nature then philosophy graduate school is almost certainly not for you.

I also recommend talking to philosophy grad students about their experiences in order to gauge whether professional philosophy is all it is cracked up to be. Do they seem happy with their lives? Do they end up with jobs? This will vary greatly based on the school; it seems that at some places students are extremely stressed and might do something else with their lives if given the chance, but at other places the students seem to be well rounded and happy individuals. This also seems to be the case of philosophy professors themselves; I’m not sure how the proportion of happy/unhappy people in philosophy compares with other professions but it doesn’t seem to be too different. I think that expectations probably play a large role as well; don’t expect to be a philosophical superstar making lots of money at a flashy institution, because you almost certainly won’t be.  However, take all this with a grain of salt, because I havn’t actually experienced grad school yet.  Talking to some grad students who have been there for a few years is probably a far better way of figuring whether you should go into philosophy.